Ebb (Chapter 6 Part 7)
They rose above the sea like great sentinels, each of their faces turned to the waters of Oldsea Strait. There stood the Lady Summer, her ladybug wings extended behind her, hammer gripped tightly in her hand. There stood the Lady Winter, cradling a babe swathed in stone cloth in her arms, her face turned with wistful longing to the sea.
Chaff huddled behind the railing, remembering Duarch Fra Henn’s statue in the plaza outside Loom’s home, his awe and surprise at someone so perfectly captured in the stone all those years ago.
Compared to the Ladies standing before him now, that statue was a pebble to four mountains.
“Close your mouth, chil’, you’ll let the flygnats in,” said Drael. Chaff shut his mouth quickly, although he glared at Drael as he did it. The fieldman sailor, on his part, did not look perturbed. “No sight quite like it, is there?” he said, leaning on the edge of his perch in the crow’s nest. “Makes you wonder if us men in all our years really could make something like that, don’t it?”
“The boy’s got the scarf, let him be the philosophical one,” snapped the captain, and Drael ducked his head. “Just keep your eye on the coast and make sure we don’t sink this bucket before we make it ashore.”
Chaff turned back to face the coast, smiling. Shore. He would miss the sea once they landed at the Temple Moscoleon, but the shore meant they had come at last to the world where she lived, that colorful place inside the tabula that Chaff had only dreamed of since he had seen four summers.
Behind him, Wozek squeezed his shoulder. “Truth be told, Chaff, I’ll be happy once we get off this boat.”
Chaff looked up at him, eyebrow raised. Lookout had made it very clear as to why she wanted to get off the ship as soon as possible, but Wozek had seemed at ease during the entire journey. “Why that?”
He leaned in beside Chaff conspiratorially, leaning on the railing. “I can’t look at your friend without getting nervous. Him standing there, I feel the Ladies may strike us with lightning any minute now.”
“Big guy ain’t causing no trouble, yeah?” said Chaff, bristling.
Wozek ruffled his hair. “Of course not. Now, do me a favor and get everybody above decks, I want to talk to them before we land.”
Chaff was already halfway across the ship before he realized that Wozek had technically given him an order. The boy furrowed his eyebrows and scratched his head. It felt like Wozek had played a trick on him, although how the boy did not know.
“Look at all them trees, big guy,” said Chaff, smiling, giving the camelopard, who was sitting down with his knees curled beneath him, a reassuring pat as he passed. A little clump of hair came loose as Chaff petted him, and Chaff did his best to swallow the lump in his throat. The big guy hadn’t been eating nearly as much as he should have, and over the last fortnight Chaff had watched the skin sag on the camelopard’s bones as his muscle melted away. Chaff hugged the big guy, who smelled of salt and rainwater from the impromptu baths he had been given, and said, “Just a little longer. Don’t get hit by lightning while we wait, yeah?”
The camelopard rumbled weakly, nudging Chaff in the chest with his head.
The boy skipped lightly down the stairs, down into the dimness below the ship. Sunlight peeked through the planks as Chaff went down, accompanied by the glow of Armand’s summerflies, buzzing in their glass jars.
They responded quickly enough when Chaff knocked, and asked no questions when he told them who had sent him. Chaff was beginning to like Wozek’s people. They were always friendly to him, always willing to offer help or teach him new things. Bori even ruffled Chaff’s hair as he passed, like an older brother would, and Chaff smiled.
When he came to Lookout’s room, though, his smile faded. He could hear her through the door, gasping and sobbing.
“Lookout?” he asked, timidly, tapping his knuckles on her door.
Inside, the owlcrow squawked, and Lookout said something incomprehensible. Chaff opened the door slowly. Wozek had been to see her quite a lot during their voyage. Was she scared? Had she been hurt? It didn’t sound like she was in pain so much as…
“By the Ladies,” whispered Lookout, the biggest smile Chaff had ever seen on her face. Her eyes were red and there was a little snot under her nose, but she didn’t seem to care. The open porthole was turned toward the approaching coast. “We found land.”
Chaff peered through the porthole. “Yeah,” he said, bemused. “That’s land.”
She hugged him then, picking him up and spinning him around with giddy laughter. “Do you know what this means, Chaff?” she said, cackling as she set the boy down. Chaff stumbled, his head spinning more than it ever had in any storm on the barge. “I can sleep at night without my bed rolling under me! I can walk more than ten feet without falling into the ocean! No more hardtack. No more maggotweevils in the cheese. No more fish. Chaff, I have to tell you something.”
“What?” asked Chaff, and he couldn’t help but giggle at Lookout’s frenzied expression.
“I fucking hate fish.”
Chaff laughed. “Big guy don’t like fish so much either, yeah?” Land, land, land. It made everybody happy, didn’t it? “Come on, Lookout. Let’s go up, Wozek wanna say something afore we land.”
They ran up together, and they couldn’t stop laughing. Everybody always called Chaff a kid, but this was the first time in a long time that he had felt like one.
Wozek was already speaking, his people arrayed around him in a semi-circle. He did not stand higher than them, but they all kept a respectful distance. When he saw Chaff and Lookout approach, he nodded, smiling, a twinkle in his eye. He didn’t seem angry, although Chaff saw how his eyes darted from Lookout to him, and then back to Lookout.
“Get supplies, make peace with the Ladies if you feel the need,” continued Wozek, addressing his people, hands folded behind his back. “They take shell here, but there’s a barter’s market or two if you’re willing to look for them. Don’t quarrel with the pontiffs. Bori, Sevra, if you think it would be wise, there are places for the child…”
Sevra, the woman who had nursed a crying babe the entire trip, held her child closer to her. They had told Chaff, all the way in Kazakhal that they were waiting for the Fallow, that for that reason the child had not yet even been given a name. Chaff frowned. Bori and Sevra had only just grown old from the looks of it. They couldn’t have been more than ten years older than him.
“It is not the way of kazakhani, but…”
“This is not Kazakhal,” said Sevra. “Don’t worry, Wozek. We’ll take care of it.”
“Take all the time you need,” said Wozek, and he gripped the woman’s shoulder. The rest of his people hung their heads in a solemn moment of solidarity. “The rest of you,” he said, stepping back again, “Do what needs to be done. We spend two days in the Temple, and then we’ll head north, by the spice road. Go on, pack your things, we’ll be landing soon.”
The crowd dispersed. Chaff was about to walk away, when he noticed Lookout staring. He followed her gaze to Wozek, raising a hand and waving the captain over, as the city loomed closer and closer on the horizon. “You’ll be sailing back to Kazakhal, I take it?” he said, in not quite a hushed voice.
“Might tour Lowsea for a spell,” said the captain, back straight and tone formal. “Waters are warm there. Might find work there.”
“Honest, I take it?”
The captain shrugged. “No promises, Wozek. I take the jobs I can find.”
“Well, if you find yourself in the Maw, tell the brushers how I’m doing,” he said. “Tell them to watch the Seat. Things are changing for us, captain, I can feel it. The kazakhani will have a place in the new world.”
The woman nodded, her pockmarked face unable to hide her doubt. “To be honest, Wozek, I can’t ask for much better than my place in the old one.”
Wozek chuckled. “You and the big lug both, eh? No worries, captain, you can keep it. The sea’s not going anywhere.” He clapped her on the back, as he walked away. “We’ll talk more ashore, keep this kapaz afloat until we get there.”
Too late, Chaff realized he was staring. He turned away quickly, but Wozek had already noticed.
“No need to hide, goodman Chaff, there’s no need to be afraid,” said Wozek, and Chaff looked up meekly. Beside him, Lookout had not moved. She stood coolly by while Sinndi, her wide eyes unblinking, followed Wozek with her stare.
“What did you mean, about-?” Chaff began, but Wozek put an arm around his shoulder and walked him away before Chaff could finish.
“So you’re here,” said Wozek. He looked out to the steadily approaching shore, his expression almost wistful. Chaff really wasn’t paying him much attention, though—he was trying to turn back to Lookout, although every time he did Wozek would squeeze his shoulder harder and Chaff would have to turn back around. “I heard something about finding a girl?”
Chaff flinched. Immediately, his hand went to his belt, but all his tabula were still there.
“Your altercation with Gopal and Sri was hard to miss,” said Wozek. “I won’t pry if you don’t want me to. I only wonder where you plan on going next. We are here, after all. Have you given any thought to my suggestion?”
“Dunno,” was all Chaff managed to mutter. “You don’t leave for a while, yeah?”
“Two days,” said Wozek, again. His eyes never left Chaff’s face.
“Then I tell you in two days,” said Chaff. He ducked under Wozek’s arm and walked away, and didn’t look back. He huddled by the big guy’s side, scratching the camelopard’s neck while he turned his thoughts away from whatever Wozek wanted from him and instead to Moscoleon. How big was it? Surely it couldn’t be bigger than Shira Hay. Chaff had heard it said many times that Shira Hay was the largest of the nations of Albumere (although it was also the emptiest), but from what he could see the city of Moscoleon dwarfed the city of Shira Hay. For one terrifying moment, the thought crossed Chaff’s mind that, like the great statues, the templemen were a hundred times greater than him.
The step pyramid at the center of the city gleamed as they approached. Chaff squinted, trying to get a better look at the shining point at its peak. Lookout had told him they killed people up there, although Chaff still didn’t understand why. Apparently the Ladies asked them to.
Chaff kept his eyes fixed on that golden point until at last they arrived.
A man with blue lines etched into the skin on his forehead, bare-chested with a length of wool around his waist, waved them over from the dock. The captain waved back, and as the ship came into port, the man raised his floor-length skirt and prepared to board. Chaff watched with interest, eyes fixed on the hat on the man’s head. It was shaped like a bowl, open towards the sky like it would collect water when it rained.
“See that, big guy?” he said, and the camelopard raised his head slowly to stare at the man’s strange hat. In Chaff’s experience, people with funny headwear were often the ones in charge.
“Pontiff, sir,” said Wozek, as the captain stepped aside. The pontiff’s eyes went from the captain to Wozek, but he made no comment. “Is there a problem?”
“Routine inspection,” said the pontiff, with a pleasant smile. Behind him, four more people were coming up onto the boat. They too were bare-chested, with feathered arm bands and long spears in hand.
“Last time I was here, the gates of Moscoleon were open to all,” said Wozek, his smile just as pleasant. “By land and by sea.”
“No doubt they were,” said the pontiff, nodding, as half his entourage went below decks while the other two split up and began looking around above. “But the last time you were here, there was no war in Albumere. The Holy Keep wishes the Temple to remain pure in these troubled times.”
On the other side of the ship, one of the pontiff’s spearmen yelped. Wozek’s spiderwhale emerged from the waters, warbling a deep bass rumble. Wozek himself just bowed, holding out his arm to show the pontiff the way.
Chaff had had enough of waiting. The city was right there, and yet all these people were just milling around, waiting for the man with the funny hat to have his fill of the sights. “Up, up, big guy,” said Chaff, patting the camelopard’s side. “Time to get some food in you, yeah?”
“Don’t let the beast off,” said the pontiff, as he saw the big guy rise. “Not until the inspection of the ship is completed.”
Chaff hauled himself onto the big guy’s back. “Not my ship, yeah? I got somewhere to go.”
“Boy’s got a powerful urge to make his peace wit’ the Ladies,” snickered Drael, as he climbed down from the mast. “Can’t hold his piety in no longer, can he?”
The pontiff ground his teeth. “Not until we’ve looked at the ship.”
“That what the Lady Fall tell you to do?” continued Drael, laughing. “Holy pontiff, got the tattoos and all, fo’ced to wait on the docks and look at some dirty migrant cargo hold. You doing the Ladies’ work, you are.”
The big guy strolled by Lookout, as Chaff sat astride him. The boy’s gut hummed with anticipation as he waited for the zealots to drag the captain’s crates of textiles and Kazakhal woodcarvings up from the hold, and for Wozek’s people to lay out their meager belongings on the deck.
Chaff glared at the woman with the spear as she made him hold out his scarf and book. He snatched them back when she tried to touch them, though, and she snarled, muttering something about wild children as she walked away.
“You’ve some extra tabula among you,” said the pontiff. “People?”
“Livestock, mostly,” said Wozek. “A companion or two among them. We take what we get, in the marsh.”
The pontiff nodded, and Chaff watched the shadows fall across his face as his hat dipped and rose. “Summon them now. One at a time.”
It was a slow and meticulous process. Chaff met Lookout’s gaze and rolled his eyes, and she looked longingly at the dock just feet away and sighed dramatically. Moscoleon’s harbor was nowhere near as busy as Kazakhal’s, and Chaff could only see a small contingent of fishing boats and a single lonely Jhidnu skiff floating in the water. There wasn’t another living soul there.
The kapaz barge rocked slowly as more animals—flapping, hissing and screeching—emerged from the most unlikely shadows and nooks. “Thank you, that’s enough,” said the pontiff. He nodded to his zealots, who stomped away soundlessly. “The Temple is open, friends and pilgrims. May fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” echoed Wozek, and he whistled for his people to follow as they finally set foot on the soil of Moscoleon.
Chaff hopped off of the big guy once they had cleared the dock. He couldn’t help it. He dug his toes into the dirt and laughed out loud, and danced and spun as he ran off into Moscoleon, the big guy close behind him.
“Chaff?” shouted Lookout. She pointed to the wall, and creaking wooden gates that were being pulled back for Wozek’s people to pass. “The city’s that way.”
The boy wasn’t listening. He waded (actually waded) through foliage so dense it went up to his waist, putting his hands on the peeling bark of the trees, through the leafy fronds of the ferns, over the perfumed petals of the flowers. He didn’t realize that a place could be filled with so much life. In Shira Hay, grass had been as ubiquitous as dirt. In Kazakhal, the grass had been replaced by mud. Here, they had both been usurped by color.
“You do realize that half that shit is poisonous, right, Chaff?” shouted Lookout. “Chaff?”
Whatever Lookout had said, it couldn’t have been that important. “Eat up, big guy!” giggled Chaff, slinging himself on the camelopard’s back as the big guy browsed hungrily.
Lookout jogged up to him, panting. “Well, OK, I guess the upper half isn’t poisonous. Chaff, listen to me. Chaff! Don’t eat anything.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, distractedly. He wanted to stand on the big guy’s back to get a better look, but the camelopard was too weak for that. The boy craned his head instead to take it all in. There was a winter quiet to the jungle, even if not a flake of snow seemed to have ever touched the ground here, but Chaff could still see movement, hear the sounds. Overhead, a macawsnake slithered through the air, while froghoppers chirped in the well-filled basins of flowers shaped like bells.
This was what the amber shadows of her tabula had been hiding for so long. Chaff felt his gut churn at the thought of having this paradise so close to him for so long without being able to see it.
“OK, Chaff, it’s plenty pretty,” said Lookout. “Let’s get back now.”
“Why you in such a rush?” Chaff giggled as the big guy snapped and pulled at a branch and leaves showered down around him. “You’re looking forward to this, yeah?”
Lookout tapped her fingers on her thigh, looking over her shoulder. Tap. Tap. Tap. “I just got a feeling. You can frolic in the flowers after, let’s go find somewhere to sleep. And something to eat. By the Ladies, I’m starving. And no fish.”
Chaff pursed his lips. “Take care of yourself, big guy,” he said, slipping off of the camelopard’s back. The big guy snorted, too busy eating for a proper response. “You get yourself in trouble, I’m watching, yeah?” said Chaff, patting his tabula.
The boy followed Lookout, wrapping his scarf tighter around his neck and mouth as they approached the gate. Prav the brusher was waiting for them, standing rather stiffly in-between two more of the feather-armed spearmen as the children approached.
“Follow quick now, goodman Chaff, goodwoman Lookout,” said Prav. “Wozek’s gone ahead to look for lodgings. There’s tenements for pilgrims all throughout the city, he says, permanent and temporary alike. Pontiffs will take their tax, of course, but that’s to be expected.”
Chaff was having trouble concentrating on Prav’s words. There were too many things to take in, even inside the walls of the city. Colorful quilt clothes lay across stands where woodcuts and holy icons were hocked like bush meat on a stick. All the buildings were made of a reddish clay, and up above the altar at the top of the great pyramid glittered.
“It’s a big city,” said Lookout, shouldering her pack of things. Sinndi squawked on her shoulder. “You got two days.”
“I got you, too,” said Chaff, and he grinned at her.
Lookout punched Chaff in the shoulder. “Sure you do.”
Chaff breathed deep, and fell in behind Prav, smiling wide. This would work. He was sure it would.
Posted on May 29, 2014, in 6.07, Chapter 6 (Ebb & Flow) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Bori, Chaff, creative writing, Drael, Ekhu, fantasy, Lookout, Lug, novel, original characters, Prav, Sail, Sevra, Sinndi, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, Wozek, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.